We were approaching Dwarka by land. On the Gulf of Kutch, Gujerat, India. My bus companions broke out in chant.
Sacred to Lord Krishna whose kingdom Dwarka is.
Dwarka is one of the seven most ancient pilgrimage destinations and one of the four holiest sites in India. Dwarka is the gate of heaven (the gate of Brahma).
It is one of the few sites in which non-Hindus are encouraged to make a statement of sympathy with Hinduism before they can enter.
The spires of Dwarkadish, the temple complex, can be seen for miles around. The temple origins are at least 2500 years old.
No part of its extensive interior can be photographed. The complex is under military guard: Pakistan is close, due north. Pakistani and Indian fishermen fish in the Gulf of Kutch, their little boats bearing the colours of their respective countries.
There my companions intended to worship.
On both sides of the approach to the steps leading into the temple enclosure are carved wooden doors. Behind them cool courtyards and ancient trees.
Steps lead up to the temple’s main gateway.
Always garlands of fresh flowers to take into the temple compound. And remembrance beads to take away.
No photos allowed on the other side of this gateway.
And the pilgrimage is not complete without a second visit to the secondary temple complex on a little island off the coast called Bet Dwarka; and to a third temple, one mile from Dwarkadish, that of Krishna’s queen, Rukmini.
On the quay where ferries await passengers for Bet Dwarka, a man sells coconut juice.
A second, a farmer wearing a magnificently sewn white cotton Gujarati jacket, gathered in tiny pleats across the upper chest, offers the whitest, freshest yogurt milk.
And Gujarati women in black and brown cotton skirts which they have embroidered with complex stitches preceded us to the boats for the crossing to Bet Dwarka.
Inside the main temple complex, Dwarkadish, cool under massive stone carvings rising up in pillars and under an ornate, very high carved stone ceiling, like a cathedral, many thousands of people gathered in the largest temple room. There behind a curtained, ornate worked iron screen was a life-sized rendering of a dark blue Krishna.
I was pushed and buffeted. For a moment I was afraid. Then not because people were joyful there and some even ecstatic and no-one meant harm. You gave yourself up to the waves of movement and if you wanted to leave, nobody stopped you if you could weasel your way out of this moving mass.
As we approached the main entry gate of Dwarkadish, one of my companions, a woman in her early 60s, of Indian descent and British citizenship and long settled in England, turned to me and said: the Moslems left us nothing. Nothing at all.
I did not respond. We were in Gujerat state. The last round of inter-religious conflict six years earlier was in Ahmedabad, the city from which we had begun this tour around the state. The proximate cause of that violence was the burning of a train in early February 2002, which caused the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims. The violence in Ahmedabad resulted in 1,044 Moslem dead, 223 missing, and more than 2,000 injured.
Not for a foreigner, treated everywhere with courtesy, to comment. Only children would touch me and reach up to my hair. They wanted to feel my African hair and then were pleased with its bounce.
My companion could not have meant her comment in an aesthetic sense. There are also the historical and spiritual senses. To those two sensitive places, I cannot go especially in a civilization not my own.
Mughal aesthetic norms were well set by the time they went into decline. Mughal artists (of all kinds) worked for the Rajput courts before and after this decline. By 1800, in portrait painting, these norms were, among others: symmetry, a palette of pale colours; very fine lines; a perspective which is flat; and attention to jewellery and other decorative elements.
As is attested by this magnificent image of Lord Krishna.
Head of Krishna: cartoon for a mural of the Raslila, ink and opaque watercolour on paper. Attributed to Sahib Ram, c. 1800. Rajastan, India. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
It is in the Islamic Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Magnificent.
In any case, would we want to box an archetype into a category, be it as anodyne as an aesthetic category?
I don’t think that is safe. For us.